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From Churchgoers to Military: ISIS 'Kill Lists' Explained

A Christmastime "hit list" of churches that appeared on a messenger app is far from the first such terrorist suggestion list, representing an escalating trend of terror supporters revealing reams of information on various targets compiled from public sources.

It's a tactic to sow panic that ISIS and its supporters have used before: putting out a list of purported targets, random information that's more of a data dump than a carefully curated list, often containing open-source information that a would-be jihadist could just get off of Google on his own.

It also represents the ideological crowdfunding of modern jihad: the terror outlet encourages followers to come up with ideas on training, weapons, targets and more -- many of the manuals and guidebooks are not issued by the same official ISIS media outlets that produce videos and magazines, but by supporters who have never left their home countries or jihadists who have taken a trip to the Islamic State -- and disseminate those tips across the web and encrypted messaging platforms.

A hacker working on the online campaign to take ISIS websites and social media accounts offline posted a screenshot of the threat discussion on Telegram that did not include a list of churches, but a link to USAChurches.org, a directory of some churches organized by state or denomination. The post also included links to Canadian, French and Dutch church directories, along with the call to target "churches, famous hotels, crowded cafes, crowded streets, markets and complexes."

It was not issued by an official ISIS media outlet.

Before Christmas, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to law enforcement agencies to be on the alert and watch houses of worship over the holidays, adding that there wasn't specific credible threat information. Similar alerts have previously been issued by the FBI around holidays and special events.

A spokeswoman for the FBI's Boston office told the Boston Herald that the FBI was "aware of the recent link published online that urges attacks against U.S. churches."

“The FBI asks members of the public to maintain awareness of their surroundings and to report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.”

It wasn't the first time ISIS supporters had distributed a hit list of religious targets. A July list that included church and synagogue members prompted Homeland Security officials to hold a conference call with Jewish leaders to discuss the finding. The list was compiled from directories posted on the religious institutions' websites.

That month, ISIS' Dabiq magazine issue was titled "Break the Cross," and argued "the true religion of Jesus Christ is a pure monotheistic submission – called Islam." A lengthy theological argument in the issue concluded with the warning that "if you continue to disbelieve, then know that you shall be defeated and then dragged altogether into Hell as your eternal, wicked abode." The magazine also profiled Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, a former Baptist from Trinidad and Tobago who converted to Islam and joined ISIS.